French rail workers begin nationwide strike

A view of the office of the French Jewish Students Union at the University of Paris

French railway services were thrown into chaos on Tuesday, the first day of rolling nationwide strikes that are set to run for months in the toughest test yet of President Emmanuel Macron's determination to modernise the French economy. State-run rail company SNCF said 48 per cent of workers needed for the network's smooth running were absent, protesting at plans to rewrite staff benefits including job guarantees and generous pensions.

A simultaneous strike by Air France staff has not affected flights. Among train drivers the participation rate was put at 77 percent. Only one in eight high-speed TGV trains and a fifth of regional trains were running on what French media have dubbed "black Tuesday".

For a total of 36 days of strike that was set to last until the end of June, the rail workers were expected to alternate between two days of strike action and three at work.

Platforms at Gare du Nord, Paris's busiest railway station, were so crowded with commuters that some tumbled onto the tracks and had to be helped back up, television footage showed.

"I do understand why they're striking", said Marie Charles, a Paris commuter.

He was forced to concede after the country's unions sent thousands to the streets in demonstrations and, in the minds of many, turned the protest movement into a battle for the soul of the country, winning widespread public support.




"I want to be very clear ... the strike action will no doubt be widely adhered to and his going to make the lives of a lot of people very hard", he said in a radio interview.

The reforms include opening lines to competition in the public sector and stripping newly recruited rail workers of a special status guaranteeing jobs for life and early retirement, reports Efe news.

Union chief Emmanuel Grondein said the strike was necessary and had a wider goal.

"I want to be very clear. the strike action will no doubt be widely adhered to and is going to make the lives of a lot of people very hard", SNCF boss Guillaume Pepy said in a radio interview, as quoted by Reuters. "We are halfway through our discussions, why block the country?"

As the strikes got underway on Tuesday, French Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said the government would stick to its position in talks with the unions, adding that she believed some were seeking to fan the flames of confrontation.

Besides the railways, employees in energy and aviation sectors were also to go on strike on Tuesday, making it the biggest industrial turmoil since the election of Macron in May 2017.

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